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Dan Bell, RIP | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Dan Bell, RIP

I’ll be in Washington next week. I’m giving a lunchtime talk at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday, February 1 at noon, but you have to rsvp. Details are here. That may be full already, though, but I’ll be giving another talk the same night, February 1, at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V at 6:30. Come say hello. US News did an interview with me for the book here.

Ok, back to work. I’ve got a new Think Again called “Craven News Network” about CNN and Ms. Bachmann’s address, and that’s here.

And OK, I’m sorry, but these Tea Party types are idiots. Bachmann, above, is the worst. (How ironic that they profess to reify the constitution when the woman they appoint as their spokesperson doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s in it. Ended slavery? I guess that’s true if you don’t include black people. And lookit Sarah Palin: The Soviet Union collapsed because the Soviets spent so much money winning the space race and no serious person should take them seriously. And now take a look at these know-nothing congressmen, pawns of the NRA, who won’t even allow research on the incidence of gun deaths to take place.)

And these—many of the same people, who won’t allow the CBO to run honest numbers on the cost of healthcare reform and its repeal. These people are proud of their ignorance. No wonder Fox is so popular with their fans and CNN so salivates after their numbers. What could be easier than to make money catering to peoples’ ignorant prejudices? You can fire the entire reporting staff and just make stuff up.

* * *

I mourn the loss of Daniel Bell, the very archetype of a committed liberal intellectual who kept his head about him when so many were losing theirs, and who managed to hold onto the friendships of people with whom he stridently disagreed, something I admire enormously but do not always pull off. I got to know him a bit late in life and was deeply proud of his interest in my work, critical as he could be. And while I am undoubtedly a better liberal for his work, it’s fair to say I might not be as committed an anti-Communist were it not for his patient conversations with me about why anti-Communism, at this late date, mattered at all, particularly to liberalism.

He told me, as he told many people, that he quit Public Interest, the journal he co-founded with Irving Kristol, because of the latter's drift to the right, and Bell’s belief that friendship was more important than politics.

In the same journal, he wrote, “The Public Interest began as a journal that was anti-ideological, with the hope that a public philosophy would emerge out of reasoned discourse; it is now enlisted in an ideological campaign against liberalism.” “The Revolt Against Modernity,” The Public Interest, Fall 1985.

My sympathies to his family.

* * *

So if you thought the world did not need yet another long, mournful profile of Marty Peretz, how wrong you were. This piece in the Times magazine is even better than the excellent one that ran in New York like fifteen minutes ago. It makes Marty appear, if anything, even less attractive than the guy who’s been spilling bile in the pages of TNR all these years (though it does at least hint at the reason he’s been able to retain the brilliant, mercurial Leon Wieseltier at New Republic pay rates after all these years: he mentions that Peretz is rumored to have purchased a house for one of his senior staffers…). What is missing in both of these excellent profiles, however, is a discussion of the long-term significant damage Peretz and his various mini-Peretzes over the years  did both to liberalism and to liberal Judaism as the result of ability to speak in the name of what was once America’s flagship liberal journal of opinion. I deal with that aspect of his career here and here and in a bunch of other places, like for instance here and here. There were any number of times during the past two decades when I thought I was doing more to preserve the honor of TNR than those who defended it.

Anyway, the Times piece has apparently inspired a discussion over the fact that Peretz is gay, but prefers not to discuss this publicly. I have no problem with this. People’s sex lives ought to be their own business, barring extraordinary circumstances, none of which are at play here. But Gawker ran an item demanding to know why there was no talk of Peretz’s sexuality in the piece and Romenesko picked it up. That led Tablet’s Mark Tracy wrote this item. It also led to this on Gayagenda.com that read: “Seriously. Take him back. Put this bigot back in the straight category. We don't want him on the team.”

Actually, if you go back through the history of Marty and TNR, you can find lots of hints. The late Henry Fairly referred to the atmosphere of TNR in the seventies as not unlike a Greek gymnasium in Vanity Fair, and other stories abounded for those who could read between the lines. When Mickey Kaus published the purloined discussion of JournoList, he, um, jumped on the one where, for some reason, TNR’s Jonathan Chait was called to task for announcing, apropos of nothing, Marty’s sexual preference to its 400 members or so, “off the record” of course. Interestingly Mickey, who had no trouble publishing these conversations replete with people’s personal emails, edited the discussion, but since the entire conversation was about Peretz that was pretty pointless for protecting his identity or his sexuality. The hypocrisy that this issue inspires is actually what’s most interesting about it. For instance Andrew Sullivan, the Sybil of American political punditry, thinks that public people do need to be honest about their sexual identities, at least when he suspects someone he doesn’t like of being gay. So he wrote of the press's hesitance to ask Elena Kagan about her sexual preference, ”The NYT's bizarre profile of Kagan, which plumbs every minute aspect of her most intimate and private life while saying nothing whatever about her emotional relationships, home, dating or indeed anything that might even touch upon her sexual orientation, gay or straight, is so contrived in its avoidance of the obvious it is almost comic." I have no idea if Kagan is gay or not, and I don’t care, but Andrew was at ground zero of this conspiracy of silence and kept quiet about it. So does the principle only hold for people to whom Andrew is not indebted or does not like? Anyway, of course there is no shame in Peretzian circles in being gay, per se. But I can imagine that it is a little embarrassing for someone who owes every ounce of his public prominence to his exploitation of his (now) ex-wife’s inherited fortune to admit such a thing, as it would undoubtedly inspire lots of clucking about the “real reason” for the marriage.   (By the way, the ex Mrs. Peretz is not, as is reported everywhere, an heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. She is an heirless to one of the lawyers for Singer, who, apparently, shared in the wealth of one of its key patents.)

Even so, it was his right to keep quiet about it and so I adhered to this rule whenever I wrote about Peretz. And if you were wondering when the cancer of the Spine would finally be lifted from TNR’s pages, it finally happened, here

Oh and speaking both of Public Interest and TNR, if you haven’t noticed yet, even though he is a bit—just a bit—of a Neocon, Adam Kirsch has quickly developed into our most valuable book reviewer in my opinion. Here is a typically sharp and original review of Irving Kristol’s most recent posthumous collection. (And speaking of posthumous, did you notice that the author of Bell’s obit was also, um, deceased? Happens to all of us, I guess…)

Congrats to Mary-Lu Zahalan-Kennedy, a finalist in for Miss Canada, and the first person in the world to gain a masters degree in the Beatles.

And too bad about the loss of Charlie Louvin, too.

Two things I want to get off my chest.

Thing one: Spirit Airlines. I never heard of Spirit before I booked a cheapo flight to Cancun on Travelocity shortly after the New Year. One word: “Don’t.” It’s the worst airline upon which I ever set foot. They charge you for every little thing. The seats are tiny. And they couldn’t care less if you don’t make your connection. Our flight left Cancun for Fort Lauderdale only nine minutes late but because of the slowpoke customs there, we did not make our connection to New York. Spirit didn’t care. They told me they had no room for me on another flight until 24 hours later. And what a nasty bunch of people they had at their flight desk, all of whom acted as if it were our fault for missing the flight. Luckily, I’m not poor, so I could afford a nice hotel and a perfectly pleasant extra day of vacation in Florida while my city was still getting snowed in. But if I had to be home for any important reason, or if my resources were in worse shape, booking Spirit would have resulted in catastrophe. I contacted the public affairs office to see if they could defend their terrible treatment of their customers and those people couldn’t give a shit either. Whatever money one saves booking Spirit, isn’t worth it.

Thing two: If you’re an Upper West Sider (particularly a Jewish Upper West Sider with kids), you probably order in from Ollie’s Noodles. Yesterday when I walked past my branch, I was handed a flier from the IWW explaining that Ollie’s uses Pur Pac which illegally fired workers for demanding that their boss comply with federal wage laws and refuses to comply with a court order to pay back illegally withheld compensation. OK, great. I’m perfectly willing to hassle Ollie’s corporate parent to have them drop these jerks. But nowhere on the flier does it tell me how to do that. I see no point in calling up the person who answers the phone at one of the branches, and does not speak great English in the first place, and hassling her. What good is that? What is the matter with the IWW or, in this case, something they call “Brandworkers International” that they don’t want to empower Ollie’s customers to actually help make their campaign a success?

Andrew and Alfred: Just saying.

Alter-reviews:

I saw Greg Allman and his band at the Bowery Ballroom the other night. It was a rare club show to celebrate the release of Low Country Blues, the T-Bone Burnett-produced album of Allman-sung classics backed up by a first-rate band made up of Doyle Bramhall II on guitar, upright bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, horns arranged by trumpeter Darrell Leonard, with Dr. John on piano and some Warren Haynes (who also showed up at the gig). The songs were classics picked from choices offered to Gregg by T-Bone and were written and recorded back in the olden days by Muddy Waters, Skip James, Little Milton and Sleepy John Estes. It’s a near perfect record. The material works perfectly with Greg’s incomparable voice and the arrangements and musicianship rocks, swings and blends in equal measure. The whole thing was done in a few days and the result is a minor masterpiece; far less complex than the musicianship that you witness when the entire ABB is assembled on stage but just about—not quite but just about—as rewarding.

I’ve also seen three fine shows at City Winery in the past few weeks. The Fab Faux did a wonderful set in the immediate aftermath of the blizzard, which without the usual horns, strings and theme, allowed you to focus on the unique genius of the music while at the same time, the sheer fun that the Beatles catalogue offers. (Seriously, I give up trying to say something new about the Beatles’ music.) Also, Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda) has developed into quite a songwriter, guitarist and bandleader and he has been doing an extremely well-received residency at CW in anticipation of his new release, Bella, which, for obvious though perhaps unfair reasons, puts me in mind of the excellent recent record by Justin Townes Earle. Funny guy, though, in addition to the smart, inventive musicianship. And finally, I celebrated my birthday with a show by Rhett Miller, whose band the Old 97s has a fine new record, The Grand Hotel, Volume 1 that puts one in mind of some of the smartest stuff from Wilco, Whiskeytown and the Jayhawks. Miller writes funny, often knowing songs, and had the audacity to rewrite “Desolation Row” and make it about Champaign, Illinois.

More Argument Starters:

On Facebook, Pierce asked for a list of one’s favorite vocalists off the top of one’s head.

Sam Cooke
Frank Sinatra
Greg Allman
Bing Crosby
Billie Holiday
Mick Jagger
Don Henley
Louis Armstrong
Patsy Cline
Stevie Winwood
Levi Stubbs
George Jones
Merle Haggard
David Bowie
Bruce Springsteen
Elvis Presley

And I asked an admittedly dumb question: “If you could only listen to the career output of one band for the rest of your life, you know, like on a desert island...” I was forced, by the reaction, to add this note: “This is a special category and has to do with musicianship, creativity and versitility. If I could ony go to one concert, it would obviously be Bruce. If I were asked for my favorite artists period, I’d include, Bruce, Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Clash, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, etc. You’d get tired of any vocalist methinks.”

1) Clapton
2) Dead
3) Allmans
4) Miles up to Bitches Brew
5) Coltrane through A Love Supreme
6) Sonny Rollins
7) Pink Floyd
8) Traffic
9) Tuna
10) Stan Getz

The mail:

Bill Keihorn
Professor Alterman,

I always read your columns in The Nation, and I like them and for the most part I agree with them. I am from Oregon however, and I wish you would reconsider your views about our disproportionate representation in the US Senate.

Oregon has resources which have value that may not be appreciated by people living in other states. Our deserts are an example. They have tremendous beauty and fragile ecosystems, yet more numerous remote city dwellers might consider a wind farm more important than saving a desert. We who live here know differently and we need our extra power in the Senate.

Of course, any citizen is free to move here if they choose and exercise enhanced senatorial influence. Then at least they will understand better what the trade-offs are.

In my view, it is not unreasonable that physically large states have two senators.

Eric replies: This is a union of the people, by the people for the people. It is not of, by and for the dirt and trees. I’m all for responsible stewardship of the land, but goodness, where does it end? Should we take away the vote from apartment dwellers?

Mark Paul
Doc—

Hate to quibble about anyone's Best of list, but that's what they're there for.

Reggie, Fran and Billy all had well-established careers before they arrived in NY. Plenty of alternatives to round out the 20. Starting with John McEnroe.

Take the A Train is spot on.

And while we're talking lists, Obama's SOTU was the best explication of liberalism I can remember from a sitting president. Not perfect, but the best.

Terry 
Cheyenne, WY
You nailed it with Palin, but you might wish to know that Wyoming is the least populous state in the United States, unless you have census data of which I'm not aware. Not that it matters. The politics of both states are pretty much at the nadir of the American experience in our times.

Eric replies: I knew that when I wrote Kabuki Democracy. Silly.

Bev Cubbae
San Francisco
Dr. Alterman: My own lack of respect for the so-called liberal media dates from those dark days when the President of the United States was so obviously seriously impaired, and nobody had the guts to cover what everyone in America could clearly see. Nobody had the common decency to tell us who was actually running the show. I have long thought that this epic fail is the real basis for the hostile relationship between institutional media and the general public.

Joe Raskin
Brooklyn, NY
I like your saying the '69 Rangers. As grateful as I am to Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and the other guys for 1994 (and I still get chills from that season), it will always be a sad thing for me that people like Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle do not have their names on the Stanley Cup. What a wonderful team that was.

I sat next to Rod Gilbert on a cross country flight a few years ago. A lovely man. The topic somehow turned to the parties that he and his friend Joe Namath threw when both were single. Oy.

Steve Davis
Harrison, AR
Lists of bests that include Athlete and do not immediately continue 1) Muhammad Ali are not worthy of respect.

Surely there can be no doubt that The Greatest could have excelled in any of the children's stick-and-ball games that have given us our current class of multi-millionaires. With that hand speed, a 100mph fastball would have looked like a stationary pumpkin. As for the admittedly ferocious Mike Tyson, at their respective peaks (surely the only fair measurement), Tyson would not have landed a glove, unless you believe that intelligence is no advantage in sports.

Do not pretend that a man with your grey is too young to remember Ali.

Eric replies: Silly me. I thought it was a list of the greatest New Yorkers. But I guess someone’s taken a few too many punches to read it that carefully….

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